By Alexandra Sifferlin
May 14, 2015

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve likely heard about the “The Dress” (if you don’t know what The Dress is, read this). It puzzled some researchers too, but now a team of scientists have published a new study shedding light on the phenomenon.

In a small study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers from Giessen University and University of Bradford learned that people vary when it comes to color perception, and this is largely due to differences in how people perceive light. What was possibly throwing people off was the lighting in the photo. In general, daylight lighting can look blueish around mid afternoon and it can look yellowish in the morning or later in the evening. Normally, people use reference points and surrounding context to perceive colors and they unknowingly will filter out the blue or yellow-hued lighting.

However, the photo of the dress had no reference points. There were no red or green colors, for example. Therefore, people looking at the dress were not able to filter out the lighting that was influencing their perception of the color. “The perceived hue in one of the groups of observers is related to the fact that a white dress was exposed to cool bluish light,” study author Karl Gegenfurtner, a professor in the department of psychology at Geissen University in a statement. “Just as well it could be a blue dress which was overexposed by warm light.”

In their study, the researchers also noted that even among people who saw the dress one way or the other, they were not necessarily seeing the dress in exactly the same way. While they generally agree, some may see the dress colors on a spectrum that ranges from very light blue to dark blue and from yellow to brown. To discover this, the researchers showed volunteers the photo and then had them separately adjust colors to match what colors they saw in the photo.

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